An Online Introduction
Anatomy of a Packraft
The cockpit of a packraft is the area in which a paddler sits. There are three broad categories of packraft cockpits: open boats, decked boats, and self-bailers. No one cockpit type is necessarily best, and each has its ideal user and use.
Open (or “undecked”) boats have a solid floor and no spray skirt. An open boat will weigh less, pack smaller, and likely cost less than an equivalent decked boat. Open boats are generally used by paddlers in warm climates, ultralight enthusiasts, and those who only plan short floats on calm water. Some dog owners enjoy open boats when packrafting with their pets.
Open boats have shortcomings on moving water at or above Class II. Water sloshing over the tubes and into the cockpit can turn the boat into a heavy bathtub, chilling the boater and making the boat difficult to maneuver. Even on totally flat water a paddler is likely to become wet over time due to drips from the paddle into the cockpit.
Despite their shortcomings, open boats can be a great choice for some uses. Paddling a splashy creek in an open boat on a hot summer day is a lot of fun, and few things are better than lazing in an open boat on a flat lake with your arms and legs draped over the tubes.
Alpacka introduced the first commercial packraft spray decks in 2004. Today, most quality packrafts intended for whitewater (Class II and above) or for longer days and trips incorporate decks. Decks shed water and prevent it from entering–or even filling–the cockpit. Decks also trap warm air and insulate a paddler’s feet, legs and lower torso. Those who spend long days on cold water tend to prefer decked boats over undecked boats or self-bailers. There are two main categories of decks: fabric (aka “velcro” or “Cruiser”) decks that don’t use combing and combed whitewater decks. Some decks can be unzipped from the tubes and either rolled up or removed entirely, effectively converting a decked boat into an undecked one.
Fabric decks use waterproof fabric, often secured or fastened around a paddler with velco, cinches, or small inflatable chambers. Baylee briefly offered a fabric deck and DIY’ers have tinkered with them for years. The only fabric deck currently on the market is Alpacka’s “Cruiser Deck” (and MRS’s fairy blatant knockoff). The Cruiser was introduced several years before combed whitewater decks, and represented a major improvement over open boats for some uses. Whitewater paddlers found that fabric decks kept most water out of their boats, drastically improving performance on Class III and IV rivers. Those who spent long days on the water appreciated the deck’s ability to keep them dry and warm.
But fabric decks always had downsides, especially in bigger whitewater. While they do a good job at shedding most water, fabric decks are susceptible to swamping from big waves. Fabric decks that only open to one side of the boat can cause problems with exits out of the “wrong” side. And the velcro used to fasten openings on most fabric decks can wear out relatively quickly, requiring replacement.
Self-bailing packrafts incorporate an inflatable floor surrounded by holes that drain water, allowing the packraft to effectively “bail itself.” Self-bailers were slow to catch on in the packraft market but have taken off in recent years, with popular self-bailing designs by Kokopelli and Alpacka. Self-bailing packrafts are easier than decked boats to get in and out of, and have a higher paddling position due to their elevated inflatable floors. Some paddlers prefer the open, free feeling that comes from not being strapped into a spray skirt.
Self-bailers tend to be much “wetter” than decked boats, both from water dripping or sloshing in from above and from water entering the holes in the floor from below. Paddlers of self-bailers must be prepared to be wet at all times. In big, long wave trains it is also possible for water to completely fill a self-bailing boat, leaving a paddler with the distinct feeling of piloting a refrigerator until the boat can drain.
Undecked Boats vs. Decked Boats vs. Self-Bailers: the Bottom Line
Most packrafters are well-served by a combed whitewater deck. Combed whitewater decks are easy to use, reliable, and effective at keeping a paddler dry. When used without a spray skirt, most combed whitewater decks feel nearly as open as an open boat. Some whitewater paddlers prefer the comfort and openness of a self-bailer, and some casual paddlers in warmer conditions are just fine with fully open boats.
Written August 2019
If you've enjoyed this introductory article series and would like to learn more, check out The Packraft Handbook, by Luc Mehl. At over 400 pages and featuring illustrations by the amazing Sarah Glaser, the Packraft Handbook is a much more comprehensive source of info about gear, technique, safety, and more.
Coming May 2021